Monday, March 31, 2014

Free Chocolate is Nice, but Free Whiskey Is Better: Hokkaido Days Zero & One

Alright. It's epically epic train adventure time. The plan for my friend Pat and I's trip to Sapporo, Hokkaido was simple: it was (in theory) marginally cheaper to get a special train pass and ride a zillion trains to Hokkaido from where we lived. I'm all for cheapness, and I enjoy trains, so I said why not let's do it. Who needs a plane? To give you an idea of this trainventure, let me show you just how far exactly, I went:

I live in the bottom circle; waaaaaaaay not near Hokkaido. There was no way I was making it from Shizuoka all the way to Sapporo in one day, so Thursday night after work I took 4 trains (and a good 5 hours) up to Gunma where my friend Pat lived so we could head out from his house in the morning, where it was logistically possible to make it to Sapporo...via 13 trains, one of which included a sleeper car. But! When we woke up on Saturday morning, we would be in Sapporo! Plan: execute.

There's not much to say about the trip up on Friday; the weather was nice (besides my allergies basically exploding) and we had zero problems when it came to changing trains. Like, we only almost missed the very first train because we were walking slow, but other than that we had no trouble whatsoever getting to our final train, the sleeper car, easily and on time. Nothing went wrong; weird right? Just wait for it. Remember this.

So let's take a moment to talk about the 13th train on our journey: the Hamanasu, a (slightly janky looking) train that has some cars you can lay down and sleep in as it travels overnight. You buy a ticket for a bed (in a pod of four) and you pull a curtain around you for the night. The way to Sapporo there was no snoring, the bed was pretty comfortable, and I managed to sleep most of the time. I woke up at 2:30 and at 5, which was okay because the train was arriving around 6. At this point I also attained Master Level status at using the Japanese toilet by using it on a moving train. Yes.

So we made it to Sapporo! Yay! Let the super long day of adventuring begin with breakfast! We needed breakfast. So we waited for McDonald's to open, haha. Breakfast eaten, we headed out very slowly for the Chocolate Factory that was opening in the morning. At said Chocolate Factory, they make these:

Delicious cookie chocolate things. So we got to see how these were made, which is nifty. And the strange chocolate factory also had a gramophone museum and a toy museum, because Japan. So it was fun to explore and take pictures of. Next, we tooled around for a little bit because it was definitely too early for lunch, (and we got Resees from the Japanese version of WalMart we found) and we headed back to the main part of town to see some Clock Tower of Significance. We didn't go in, but it appeared to be one of the original buildings of Sapporo and important and all that. It was interesting! We also did some shopping around, feeling out the souvenirs of the area. At lunch time, we decided to start the eating of the Famous Foods of Hokkaido. 

Famous Hokkaido foods I knew of / Coveted: Ramen, Sushi, Lavender Ice Cream, Soup Curry, and the Chocolate pictured above. Chocolate done, we decided to hit up some Sapporo style ramen for lunch. And of course it was delicious. I personally didn't taste a huge difference compared to non-Sapporo ramen, but it was still good ramen. Win. 

Next we headed for a (sort of) nearby city called Otaru, where near that was another baby city that had a famous Whiskey Distillery we wanted to explore. We had about a half hour before our train left in Otaru, so we poked around a bit. Mind you, until this point I had yet to see any evidence of lavender ice cream, and my determination was increasing to find said ice cream. (First thing that made Rosie want to go to Hokkaido: Lavender Ice Cream) So while we waited we searched, no luck. We found the tourist center who gave us a map to hopefully lavender ice cream, which we planned to explore after whiskey.

So we headed to the Whiskey Distillery, and we saw how whiskey was made which was cool (and also cool that it had an English button on the explanatory TVs). But the best part was that not only was the factory free, but the free samples at the end were also free. You could get a pretty decent couple sipfuls of 10 year old whiskey, 17 year old whiskey, and apple wine. I've never had straight whiskey before, and damn, so I only had one of the whiskeys. But the apple wine was really good. I did not buy any, but I did get a shot glass. Heck yes.

After returning to Otaru, we began the quest for lavender ice cream in earnest. We followed the directions of the tourist center, and despite passing many many ice cream places (one of which appeared to be Bertie Bott's: Kimchee, Sesame Seed, Potato?! I considered going there instead, but I must have lavender) I was about to give up, when Pat found it! Yay~! It was...lavender tasting. Haha. Like, I've never eaten lavender, but it was good. And the cows are in Hokkaido (because space) so the milk in the north is really good; hence the vanilla ice cream was awesome. And melon is also a thing, so my ice cream was threefold. And the melon tasted like sherbert.

Success! Dreams fulfilled. Next we started to head for the street of sushi, because the sushi of Hokkaido is said to be the most awesome. After stopping in some stores along the way (got some fancy hand-blown Hokkaido glass of win) we made it to the street of sushi...and searched for some that didn't cost a million dollars. Both my friend and I are pretty choosy with our sushi (meaning we didn't want the fish eggs one), but we managed to find one that had a decent portion of sushi that we both could manage to eat. And it was SO. good. Hands down best sushi I've ever eaten. Even the squid one. Yum.

At this point we were ridiculously tired; by the end of the day it seemed as if we had been in Hokkaido for days. So we got on the train, headed back to Sapporo, found our hotel, checked in, and passed out. Day one: Complete!


A Mugiwara Day: Tokyo

(written on the train heading to Gunma before our trip to Hokkaido)

Well hey there! Since I'm about to go blog crazy with Hokkaido adventures, I figured I should tell you about last weekend (March 22) first!

(Even before then: At the end of February we tried to go see plum blossoms in Nihondaira in Shizuoka, and we waited for the one bus to get up there, and lo and behold they had all completely bloomed already and there was practically nothing to see. Utterly epic fail, so I attempted to take some pictures and we got on the same bus on its way back down the mountain. I waited to post these pictures because we were going to see more plum blossoms in the mountains in March, but we were poor and decided against it. So have some pictures of that failed event, haha.)

Anyway. Picture it. March 22nd...((The pictures are there btw))

SO I have a friend who loves One Piece just as much as I do (I feel if you read this blog that by now I probably shouldn't have to explain what One Piece is [but Mugiwara does mean straw hat, if you wondered]) and we've been planning for a while to find the time to hit some major One Piece attractions in Tokyo. More specifically, a One Piece themed restaurant and the mother of all One Piece stores (that opened a few months after I left Japan the first time, if I'm not mistaken -.-). Budget-breaking day trip, gooo!

So there are many different ways to reach Tokyo from where I live at various speeds and prices. Wishing to save some money, my friend and I reserved seats on a bus (which roundtrip is about 45$) which in theory would take us to Tokyo in about 3.5 hours. I say in theory because Tokyo traffic as hilariously insane as you'd think it to be, and (both ways) we had to wade through such business. So leaving at 8:50 we were supposed to arrive around/after 11:30, aaand we got there at 12:15. Yeeeah. But! The day wasn't super urgent, so no worries! Our return bus departed at 6:10, so we had lots of time for shopping and copious money spending.

First. Lunch! The One Piece restaurant was a bit far away, so we decided to make our way out there first (and we were also quite hungry of course). I was expecting just a type of quick-food service place with One Piece themed food, just like other One Piece events I'd been to. So I was very impressed by how...upscale the place was. It was very impressive, and the food was delicious. And we also happened to be there for one of the random times that the "owner" (show character) came out and talked to the customers, so we got to take a picture with him :D

Afterward we stopped at the nearby (sort of new) mall called Diver City Tokyo because there used to be a Jump Store there (there wasn't) -.-. But the journey wasn't an utter waste; when I was in Odaiba last this place was under construction, and the Gundam I took pictures in front of was shrouded in construction and fences. So now I have better pictures of the Gundam! ((Irony: this gundam was built in Shizuoka, where I live now XP))

Meanwhile, fortuitously my friend David from college (who is a JET in Kyoto) had come up to Tokyo the night before to visit a friend of his. And he was free, so he met up with us at this point to hang out and have merriment!

So we headed over to Shibuya to find the fabled Mugiwara Store, the sort-of-new store that is a beautiful place to spend all the money on One Piece goods. It took us a minute to find it because it was in a mall called Parco, but because Tokyo is Tokyo there are three different Parcos, but we found it. And it was so beautiful. And I'm proud to say that I spent less than what I thought I was going to. :D


When we were waiting in line at the checkout, behind the registers they were playing a Universal Studios Japan (USJ) commercial on loop. I was already aware that in the summer USJ has a huge One Piece event, and we were already planning on going (also: Harry Potter is supposed to open here then; yes please). But! This commercial was advertising for something going on now in USJ, until the beginning of May.


AND, the star of said show was my and my friend's favorite character. Needless to say, before I made it home that night we had booked tickets for a weekend trip to USJ in the end of April. Woo! Get excited.

But anyway, after some One Piece purikura--

--We took a brief pit stop at The Disney Store before heading to Tokyo station to attempt valiantly to find the stupid bus (which we did, eventually. And it was hot. And we were talking, which no one else was doing. And I added to my foreign stereotype by eating hamburgers from the rest stop. Yes.)

So all the One Piece adventures! We have a lot more One Piece plans in the future for some reason. Go figure.

Now, to Hokkaido with me!